Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Lip Balm Is Already Lost

I am not the type of person who loses things.  As an adult anyway. 

As a child?  Well...when I was in elementary school in Texas I lost my glasses.  Twice.  I used to wear them only when I needed to see the blackboard.  The rest of the time I carried them in a bright green zippered glasses case that had the word "Glasses" printed on it in huge letters.  I attached it to a belt loop with a little chain.  I remember it banging into my leg as I ran on the playground.  I lost the case and the glasses.  And then I lost another pair.  Same case.  In middle school I threw away my retainer.  Twice.  I used to dutifully take it out to eat my peanut butter sandwich at lunch.  And because it was gross to look at, naturally I wrapped it up in a napkin.  And naturally, I forgot about it.  And dumped the napkin into the trash along with my milk carton and sandwich baggies.

And we all wonder why no one asked me to the prom...

But let's face it.  Somewhere deep down I didn't want those glasses.  And I hated that retainer.  Didn't I want them to be lost?

In the last few months I have lost several more precious though less valuable things.  Sometime around Thanksgiving I lost a very special necklace that's handstamped with Doc Hubby and Bean's names.  I remember taking it off at night.  I remember setting it down on a dresser.  I suppose I never picked it back up.  Since I have been in Louisville I have lost a pair of fingerless mittens my Mom got me and I loved.  They may be on the floor of the movie theater at the mall where Doc Hubby and I saw "The Hobbit" in 3D (remind me to take a Dramamine before I see another adventure flick in 3D).  But I actually rather doubt it.  I may have inadvertently thrown them away, too.  I subsequently wrote a postcard to Bean.  The postcard pictured Route 80 in Central Pennsylvania.  I bought it several years ago just because I thought it was hilarious.  Who buys a postcard of an interstate?  I wrote it out to Bean, stamped it, slid it into my script, went to the theater, and simply could not find it.  I have no memory of mailing said postcard.  I have searched.

Just today I discovered my favorite lip balm appears to be AWOL.

Each of these things is an item that I rather distinctly remember putting somewhere for safe keeping.  A dresser.  The pocket of my jacket.  Inside of my script.  They were all dear.  Even the lip balm, kinda.  And now...?  What is wrong with me?  Where is my brain?

We worked through and ran the last act of OUR TOWN today.  It is so shatteringly beautiful. From amongst the ranks of the dead and against their firmly-stated advice, Emily chooses to go back to life and relive her 12th birthday.  She receives an unexpected present from her then 12-year-old neighbor--the boy who will grow up to be her husband.  She gets a special and much-desired gift from her mother.  And an heirloom present from her grandmother who has since passed.  Some of these things she seems to remember, 14 years later.  Some of them she admits she had forgotten.  All were special, one way or the other.  And because of that, or maybe in spite of it, she can't bear to look at any of them.  From beyond the grave everything is precious.  Every moment is vanishing.  Every cup and saucer and piece of bacon and heirloom hair comb.  I can't look at everything hard enough, she says.

And then she says:
Do any human beings realize life while they live it--every every minute?

And the Stage Manager responds:
No. The saints and poets, maybe they do some.

What would happen if we realized life every every minute?  If every precious necklace and every fingerless glove and every tube of lip balm were recognized as perhaps the last token of a beautiful life that could end at any moment?  The remnant of an era before... something changed?  Because of course we never know when that minute will be.  That drive down the interstate.  That elevator ride to the top of a sky scraper.  That camping trip to Crawford Notch.

I don't think I'd like to realize life every every minute.  I think it might be devastatingly sad.  And crazy-making.  As it is I can barely look at videos of Bean ice skating while I'm in Kentucky without seeing how much her permanent front tooth has grown in.  How long her legs are.  And feeling somewhat mangled inside because of it.

I think I'd like to realize life every maybe?  Once a day?  To mark something.  To observe something.  To take in something with a rather more profound depth than usual.  To live a conscious moment.

And then immediately to lose my lip balm.  Or my fingerless mittens.  Or even my precious necklace.  Because what is it those Zen fellows say (to borrow the "folksy" tone of the OUR TOWN Stage Manager)? Isn't the glass already broken?  Isn't the lip balm already lost?  Isn't the child already grown?

I'm glad they were mine for a little while anyway. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

May 5th and February 11th

"Father died a year ago today.  On your birthday Irina, May 5th." Three Sisters

"Well now dear, a very happy birthday to my girl and many happy returns." Our Town

This is the second play I have done in a row that involves a character's birthday.

We performed "Three Sisters" on May 5th.  The actress who played Irina's actual birthday was the day after.  May 6th.  The prop birthday cake we used in that production was laughable.  Like some kind of joke.  There is no way that a single person in the audience could possibly have believed it was an actual edible cake.  On the actress who played Irina's actual birthday, we brought in a real cake.  We put real candles on it, and surprised her onstage.  I will never forget her face.  She was so surprised and tickled and amused.  She just kept giggling.  And there's something especially glorious about that sort of thing happening in front of a live audience amongst professional actors who know how to keep the play going.  It was grand.

We will be performing "Our Town" on Emily's birthday--February 11th.  My "daughter's" birthday.

It is a funny thing when something someone speaks on stage is actually true.  When it really is May 5th or February 11th.  Or Christmas Eve or an actor's birthday.  When the stage truth and the true truth converge.  For a moment there is a wonderful clarity--a crystalline moment of shared reality.  And we all actually see each other for a second--even if we've been doing a play for weeks or months and it has become a bit stale.  Theater artists strive a whole lot to create reality on stage.  Most of our efforts are put into finding a way to create circumstances that will allow the lines the playwright has given us to say, to become true.  And by the time we are performing a play...well maybe we feel true about 50% of the time.  Maybe 60% on a good night.

It's a funny job.  Typically a group of total strangers get together in an empty room.  Grown adults mostly.  And then we pretend to be married and related and someone else's mother or wife or best friend.  And we hug and kiss and cry.  And in about a month we do all that in front of people.  Weird, right?  Pretty sure most jobs don't involve pretending to parent coworkers.

And it's my actual birthday today.  750 miles from home.  I've never had my actual birthday celebrated onstage.  But I've had the great privilege to be working on a number of my birthdays.  I think for a lot of people having to work on your birthday is a tremendous bummer.  Those of you who are fortunate enough to have a job most days of your life.  For me, actually, it's grand.  It means that on the day that marks the passage of another year, I'm actually doing what it is I want to be doing.  I turned 40 during the run of my first Broadway show.  That was one of the best days of my life.  How many people can say that about their 40th birthday?

Today in rehearsal my job is to be a mother.  And then to be a friend.  And to mime making breakfast in a 19th century kitchen.

I think in 2014 I'm going to strive to do at least two of those things with as much truth and awareness and thoughtfulness offstage, as I do on.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Ghosts of Christmas Past

So I was last here in Louisville ten years ago.  I played a 1930's magician's assistant in a beautiful play called "Orange Lemon Egg Canary."  That's me in the shorts.  The title refers to a magic trick in which the magician peels an orange and inside it he finds a lemon.  He peels the lemon to reveal an egg.  He cracks the egg and a canary flies out.  Cool trick.

I have been trying, since I arrived, to overlay my memory of being in this this theater...with my experiences of the last week.  Merging the map of the city in my head with the streets I'm walking--like superimposing Google maps and street view.  We were here 11 weeks in 2003.  I should be able to remember something.

And I have been failing miserably.  I can't remember which rehearsal room we used ten years ago. I  walk to where I remember the door being, and hit a wall.  Admittedly, the city itself has changed significantly.  We're not staying in the same building we stayed in before.  An effort has been made to revitalize the downtown and there's a HUGE stadium, the KFC YUM! Center (I wish I were making that up) across the street from the theater.  Beyonce sang there not too long ago.  But it is downright disconcerting to know that I was here, know it for a fact, and not remember much of anything.  The Starbucks is where I recall it being--but it looks totally different inside than my memory of it.

And then there's the fact that I did "Our Town," the same play I'm doing now, fifteen years ago.  And much like this city, I remember some of it crystally.  I remember loving being on top of the ladder and listening to the choir practice in the first act.  I remember sitting at the soda fountain.  I can hear the voice of the woman who played my mother loud and clear.  I have to resist falling into some of her line readings.  And yet.  I have been racking my brain and I have absolutely no memory of who played Mr. and Mrs. Gibbs.  I can't picture the kid who played my brother.  The stage manager's words just lurk somewhere right at the back of my head.  Vaguely familiar.  I can taste them in the back of my throat.

I have lived long enough that there are parts of my adult life which are absolute complete blanks.

We have zillions of people in this play.  All 19 young actors who form the theater's apprentice company are in the show.  When they tumble into the rehearsal room, it's like I'm suddenly surrounded by puppies.  Puppies with lots of facial hair and plaid shirts and big glasses and stocking caps.  I have to stop myself from grabbing them and saying, look, I know I seem to you like some forty year old lady who is playing the mom...but about thirty seconds ago I was an unpaid intern and moving the furniture.  Last week I did the scene up on top of the ladder.  Just blink and you'll be Mrs. So-and-so, too.

You'll be finding yourself saying the exact, and I mean the exact, words your mother said to you.  Your fictional mother or your real one.  Or both.  You'll catch yourself saying those same words exactly as she did and trying to at least change the inflection.  After all, you're doing things your own way.  You'll be alone in actor housing five days before Christmas, watching "It's a Wonderful Life" and seeing scenes you swear have never been included in the televised broadcast...and checking twitter to see if this year they're doing some uncut longer version that they've never done before.  Because since when do we see George Bailey as a kid? And finding out that no.  You just simply don't remember it.

Ghosts of Christmas Past. 

In the play "Orange Lemon Egg Canary" the actor playing Great, the magician, does the magic trick on stage.  He peels the orange and lo and behold there's a lemon.  He peels the lemon and reveals an egg.  He cracks the egg...

and it plops to the floor in a sticky mess.

Funny.  I could have sworn a canary flew out.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Best Laid Plans...

So an hour after I published that last post I got a text from Doc Hubby.  Bean had a temp of 102.

Are you friggin KIDDING me?  This week was jam packed full of holiday activities! Open ballet class on Tuesday for Granny and Pops to attend!  A family gathering at school.  Pajama Day.  Macy's windows!  Christmas shopping and a poker game for Daddy.  So much everyone wanted to do this first week I am away.  This last week before Christmas.

Yesterday the fever rose to 103.  And then Bean got an itchy rash on her butt.  At that point I urged Doc Hubby to text a pediatrician friend.

"Is there something going around...103 fever, mild sore throat, rash...?"
"As a matter of fact, yes.  Lasts 48 hours or so."

Can this please be some weird rashy virus that only children are susceptible to and adults simply cannot get?

We started blocking the play today.  Always feels like jumping off a cliff.  But miming making an entire breakfast in a 19th century kitchen.  Um.  So what does an ice box look like again?  And how exactly do you string green beans?

Lucky for me, Kameron with a "K" made a video to help out with that one.  I think it bears sharing.

Here's what I learned today.  All Mrs. Webb (the character in OUR TOWN that I'm playing) wants to do is to raise healthy children.  This appears to be her primary goal in life.   Yet (spoiler alert)... both kids and her best friend will be dead before her 45th birthday.

Sucks to be Myrtle.

The best laid plans...

Monday, December 16, 2013

Mama's Gift

Mama is back in the act.  Acting.  Playing a Mama.

I am doing "Our Town" in Louisville, Kentucky.  A theater where I first worked a little over ten years ago.  Before I was a Mama.

Bean has known for months that I was going to do this play.  We talked about it and did our best to set up a framework in which she could feel comfortable and included in my leaving.  I will be back for Christmas.  She will come down and see the play.  And then I will come home.

Still, Doc Hubby had to peel her, screaming, off of me yesterday when I left for the airport.

"But do you really absolutely have to go do the play?"
"I do.  They are counting on me."
"Do you absolutely have to go today?"
"I do. I'll be back in just a week for Christmas, okay?"
"It is NOT OKAY!!!"

Fifteen years ago I played the daughter in this play.  I loved doing this play.  I loved the soda fountain scene most of all.  I also loved playing the third act but I struggled to find the emotional depths.  The playwright says that Emily sobs when she goes back home and sees her Mama "so young."  I never sobbed.

Today I couldn't get through reading the last act without tearing up embarrassingly.  And of course, Mrs. Webb can't cry.  She's just making biscuits or oatmeal or bacon or whatever Emily's favorite breakfast is.  Because that's Mama's job.

I just spent about 45 minutes trying to figure out what Mrs. Webb's birthday present to Emily in the third act would have been.  Emily turned 12 in 1899.  I have no memory of what I imagined it was when I was playing Emily.  Something Mrs. Webb had to send all the way to Boston for.  Something they didn't even have in Concord...the capitol of New Hampshire.  What in the world can this be? I have some ideas.  They all sound vaguely silly.

I left to come here yesterday...the 15th of December.  All of Bean's Christmas presents are ordered and 90% of them are wrapped.  That's what Mamas do, isn't it?  Find the special presents.  Wrap them.  Send to Boston if you need to.

Do I really absolutely have to come and do this play?  As I was leaving yesterday I just wanted to say "Nope.  Mistake.  Wrong.  Just kidding. Take the suitcases back inside I don't have to go."   I mean, how can I leave her?  She's six!  Our little family is so precious and it's a big world out there.  And after all, it's Christmas.

But I remember that when the offer came to do this play, my heart leapt and I thought "yes!" I think I will be a better Mama if I come to Kentucky for two months to do this play.  I told her that.  I told her that Mama is a storyteller and I need to come and tell this story.  But I can in no way explain my decision to Bean in a way that will satisfy her.

So as much as it is a gift to me, to come here and do this play, I really believe it is a gift to her too.  I had to send all the way to Kentucky for it.  I had to go away and pretend to be someone else's Mama for a while.  And pretend to be part of a different family.  And it's because of my actual daughter, I think, that I could now go back and do the Third Act as Emily.  And begin to glimpse what Emily can see from beyond the grave.  After all I'm fifteen years closer to it.

But it's too late.  I can't go back and be Emily now.  I'm the Mama.

I think that's kind of what this play's about.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Afraid of Famous People

And then sometimes there are these days in this business.  When in real life, you bump up against actors or directors or writers who touched you when you were younger.  These encounters are somewhat inevitable and yet they feel completely bizarre and wonderful all at the same time.

And the kind of crazy thing is that when they happen to me, I pretend they aren't happening.  I don't speak to the people.  I stare at my phone.

Once, though,  I did say something.  I decided that if I had influenced someone when she was younger, and she came up to me and said, "thank you, what you did made a difference in my life" I would really appreciate it.  It might, in fact, make my day.  So a few years ago, I was in rehearsal for a play and lo and behold, in the common area of the theater, an actress sat eating her lunch.  I'll call her The Alto.   I had seen The Alto in my high school days, in a musical that I had absolutely loved, playing the role that I had absolutely loved.  A show that made me think, "hey if I can do this for the rest of my life, then I'm good." And I went up to The Alto and I told her that her play and her performance had profoundly affected me.  And I thanked her.

The thing is, The Alto wasn't particularly gracious.  She smiled indulgently and then quickly went back to her salad. My very sincere comments appeared not to have made her day.  Not remotely.  And I was kinda sad. 

So I tried to get inside her head a bit.

I know, as so often happens, that The Alto's response was probably far more about her experience that day than it was about me.  There I was, no longer a very young woman, speaking to her about a performance that took place more than twenty years ago.  As I stood there, eagerly praising her, I was a living reminder of her own aging, already sporting some wrinkles myself.  Or maybe she had heard the same praise a thousand times already and was tired of it.  Though if I told you her name, odds are you wouldn't recognize it.  Or maybe she was just having a bad day. Either way, it soured me on spilling.

So then today, as the world so often goes, I found myself in the presence of the Writer and Director of that very musical.  In the basement of that same theater.  He was auditioning actors for his new play, and I was there to be the reader.

At any given audition, behind the desk sits the director, sometimes a casting director, sometimes the playwright, maybe the Artistic Director of the theater, and a smattering of assistants perhaps.  In front of the table, are the "readers"--the actors who typically sit in chairs facing the auditioners and read their scenes with them. Young actors are encouraged to be readers.  It's a great insight into the audition process.  A lesson in how to have a good audition.  And how, perhaps, not to have such a good audition.   I have been a reader a lot over the past ten years.  I have met some pretty cool people.  I have stories.

So I was in the room being a reader for The Writer/Director.  And he was funny and genuine and generous.  He did this wonderful thing that I have only seen one or two other directors do with any kind of consistency.  He talked to the actors before asking them to read.  Not such an earth-shattering concept, perhaps, for those of you in businesses where civility reigns.  But nine times out of ten actors walk into a studio, say hello, note the type of sandwich the director is voraciously eating, and dive right in to their prepared material.  Having someone stop, and look at you, and ask you where you are from and compliment your shoes and engage you for a few minutes, is so humanizing.  And productive.  Everyone shares a laugh at some point.  Everyone exhales.  And I watched as the keyed up and nervous actors relaxed into their skins a bit.  I saw them release their nerves enough that they could actually see The Writer/Director.  See the room.  Even very experienced and brilliant actors seemed to benefit from this little moment of interaction.

So basically The Writer/Director, whose show I had adored so very much, then proved to be a pretty wonderful human being in the audition room.

And I said nothing.  I mean, I talked and laughed and did my job as best as I could.  But I did not at any point mention the show twenty years ago and the effect it had on me. 

What is even more bizarre is that before the audition session started, I arrived at the theater about ten minutes early.  A very big production is in rehearsal at that same theater right now.  I wondered if any of the actors would be milling about, until I remembered it was Monday.  The traditional dark day at the theater.  So I was doubly surprised to walk into the little seating area, the same seating area in which I had seen The Alto several years ago, to find one person sitting alone a table.  The actor playing the lead in the big production.  This actor, I'll call him Holden, also happened to be a teen star when I was a teen.  The first film in which he made a splash, was an absolutely brilliant movie that appealed to every bookish kid of my generation, and made stars of many of the actors.  My friends and I all continue to reference it over and over and over again.

I croaked out a "hello" and Holden said "hi" and looked at me like "do I know you?" Which wasn't completely crazy since we are nearly exactly the same age and 13 years ago I did a play with one of his best friends.  But no, we don't hang out.  And then he asked me if it was still raining and I said no.  And I was ready to make a joke about working on a Monday when another person entered the room.  Someone about to audition for The Writer/Director.  And suddenly I couldn't just make small talk with the famous guy sitting at the table next to me, because for some reason, with another dude around, it felt weird.

I never said anything about admiring Holden's substantial body of work.  Film and theater.  Of being really excited about the production he was working on.  Of the movie he did in the late 80's that profoundly affected me...and about a zillion other people.

I didn't say anything.

Because, I don't want to be the person who bugs famous people.  Who isn't, like, "oh yeah I'm a New York actor we see famous people all the time, it's no big deal, they shoot Law and Order on my street, like every other day."  Because apathy is hip.  Because we all have to be so cool.  So over it. 

But in not taking a chance, and sharing a genuine reaction with someone, I missed the opportunity for a wonderful interaction.  Far more wonderful than "is it raining?" "no."  Which unless you're wrapped in someone's arms when you say it, doesn't really mean much.  Sure, you don't get dissed like I did by The Alto.  But you don't get a chance to connect.  The value of which The Writer/Director was about to make apparent in spades in the audition room.

It's a tricky balance isn't it.

No one wants to be a pest.

Everyone, it would seem, appreciates a compliment.

And I, it turns out, am rather afraid of famous people.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Death and Dry Spells

I got my first big acting break when someone died.

I was 21 and just out of college, doing an internship at a wonderful theater company near my hometown called The Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble.  The Taming of the Shrew was the first show of the season.  I was nervous.  I was excited.  I was playing...I don't even remember who.  I think just an ensemble member.  I don't even think my character had a name.  Not uncommon in Shakespeare to be cast simply as "ensemble."  Sort of like a musical.  The concept behind this production was that a woman would play Petruchio and a man would be Kate.  Lots of other characters were also cast cross gender.  How did it work?

It was a pretty brilliant production--I've never seen another one like it.  For you Shakespeare nerds, Christopher Sly passed out in the prologue after drunkenly throwing pewter beer mugs at the Hostess.  While he was sprawled on the tavern floor, the Lord and players arrived and decided to put on a show for him.  However, in this version, Sly was cast as the star.  When Sly came to, he was in a dress, a script in his hands, and playing the first scene as Kate, the Shrew.  The Hostess was his Petruchio.  As it happened, some of the most brilliant actors I have had the pleasure of working with were playing Kate and Petruchio.  And the adaptation worked beautifully.

An African American actress whose name I am embarrassed to say I have forgotten, was cast as the Lady of the Manner who would then go on to play Baptista, Kate and Bianca's father.   And then the tragedy.  That actress died.  Of sickle cell anemia.  And I was given the role of Baptista.

I was twenty one.  I was adequate, I suppose?  I remember feeling like every other character on the stage was absolutely hilarious and I was just...not funny at all.  And then my also very brilliant and quite hysterical friend David who was playing Hortensio gave me some advice.  He said something like, "Baptista is Newhart. He's not necessarily all that funny.  He's the sane guy surrounded by all the craziness, and all he can do is watch it all go on around him."  I was comforted.  I have a feeling a better actress...or anyway some chubby old guy...could make actually Baptista funny.  I didn't.  But I went on. 

My second big break happened when someone got deathly ill.

Almost ten years after that production of Shrew I again found myself doing Shakespeare.  Again playing an ensemble member without a name.  I call her Birdcage Girl.  It was a production of Hamlet and I was cast quite literally as a walking metaphor.  I followed Ophelia around, occasionally held her cloak when she doffed it, and carried an empty birdcage.  When she went cuckoo...I stumbled backward in a big sand pit and opened the birdcage door.   I also held ice cream cones and lusted after Horatio.  Did anyone notice I wonder...

The production was high profile and fraught with all kinds of personality conflicts and artistic indecision.  I watched it all go down from the sidelines, safe in my basically nonspeaking role.  I carried scenery and dressed the set...with myself.  The first preview was delayed a week, and we were panned in the press despite the fact that I think the dude who played Hamlet is brilliant.  A master with the language and the real deal.  An actor not just a star.

And then Gertude got sick.  First her voice started to go, and she did one whole performance with a body mike.  And then one night I got a call...from the Executive Director of the theater...telling me that yes indeed Gertrude is very sick and was I aware that I was her understudy?  I was not, in fact, aware of this.  She had heard I was a quick study and could I possibly go on tomorrow?  Less than 24 hours from then.  As Gertrude.  In Hamlet.  I remember just sitting down at my computer armoire in our studio apartment on 96th street and telling Doc Hubby that I had to learn the role of Gertrude that night so I could play it the next day in front of a paying audience.

As it happens, I am a quick study.  I had been hearing the play for weeks.  I had seen much of it.  But there were scenes I hadn't witnessed since the rehearsal room--including the notorious closet scene.  I remember that during the put-in rehearsal the next day, anytime we took a break I just went into the bathroom and cried.  I did the show that night.  Hamlet gave me flowers and champagne.  Claudius pulled me over before the show and said "Look if you're out there, and you need some help, just come on over to me...we'll have a little chat."  People were supportive and lovely.  I felt, while the show was going on, that I was running a marathon.  I would sit offstage and rub my quads and just keep my head in the game.  And I did it.  I made it.  I said all the lines and stood in the right places and died dramatically.

I went on to play Gertrude eight more times.  Never knowing any given day when I showed up at the theater if I was going to play Birdcage Girl or Gertrude.

I haven't been hired at that theater again.  Though the artistic director at the time did cast me in my second Broadway show.  We never talked about it.  I suppose he remembered...?  I feel like that was a bit of karma.

I have not had a theater job in 21 months.  I have auditioned quite a bit.  I have been called back consistently.  I have tried really really hard.  Really hard.  Really.

I am trying to make some sense of this...this..let's recall some of the names I have called my period of underemployment lately: dry spell, hiatus, sabbatical, batting slump.  I have been Kindergarten Room Mother (they call it Parents Association Rep now, but I prefer Room Mother) and tried to be very present for the beautiful small person who is in my charge.  I have written most of a screenplay and I have become something of an avid spinner and biker.

But still.  Mama wants a job.  I have thrown my hat in on a show that rehearses over Christmas.  This is just how much Mama wants a job.  I love Christmas.  This decision to be discussed later.

So my question today is: I wonder who will have to die in a car accident for me to get cast in a play again...?